The ideals of peace and the necessities for war face off in Xavier Beauvois's latest feature film, 'Of Gods and Men.' It's loosely based on the unfortunate true story and mysterious deaths of seven Trappist monks during the Algerian Civil War in 1996. The awarding-winning French film carefully retraces the events which lead up their senseless end without making the case for martyrdom, which makes for an even more interesting watch. The filmmakers, instead, seem more content with simply chronicling the lives of these men and acknowledging their admirably eternal benevolence. Even when confronted by threats of hate and violence, they stay true to their order and vows, which is something we can all respect.
To be sure, the plot, co-written by the director with producer Etienne Comar, comes with a moral center as the monastic men struggle with their desire to flee the country or remain put. The theme of faith and devotion is all too clear throughout, but it's also something that serves the logic of the characters, the reasoning behind their decision to stay. It never feels like a heavy-handed effort to reach the audience or convey a particular message. We are merely observers in an attempt to understand why anyone wouldn't follow their first instinctual response to run away from impending harm. Beauvois also takes a somewhat distant approach in this powerful drama about commitment and an obligation to service those in need.
We are first introduced to the monks with scenes of the monastery and the men working their usual daily routines. They do morning prayers, keep to their garden, read and translate books, including the Quran, and provide medical assistance to the Muslim village nearby. Their invitation and attendance at a birthday party for a local boy reveals the close relationship they've developed over the years with the people. It's a strictly ritualized lifestyle that most would find rather boring, but on the faces of these men, we can see they are satisfied and fulfilled by their work. More importantly is the extraordinary amount of silence and peace which surrounds them, a communal existence that's seductively serene and cordial.
When danger for them and the village finally draws near, it's not gunfire, explosions or the wails of injured innocents which disrupts their quiet living. Rather, the real strife and chaos is an internal one, where the monks are forced to faces themselves as their dedication to a faith of social justice is put to the test. This is where the performance of the actors is so crucial, because if they can't express those inner emotions with as few words as possible, the entire film fails. Thankfully, the mostly all-male cast is up to the task and they deliver with astounding success. Most notable is Lambert Wilson as the elected leader of the monastery and in whose face we see the painful conflict of abandonment or self-sacrifice take shape. It's a remarkable and unforgettable portrayal from a man who once made French curse words sound romantic in 'The Matrix Reloaded.'
'Of Gods and Men' is a powerfully meditative film on the moral wars we wage inside ourselves and the internal conflicts that either strengthen or destroy one's soul. It tells the ill-fated story of Trappist monks living peacefully in a Muslim village during the Algerian Civil War. But it's also a poignant drama about remaining steadfast to one's personal beliefs and obligations in light of violent threats to do otherwise. The outstanding performances of the cast bring this tragic tale to light while vividly expressing their emotional turmoil as devoted Christians. Beauvois keeps an observant eye as events naturally unfold, but he also brings a stylized approach that makes us sympathize with the men. The final supper scene is a thing of beauty, a celebration of life as well as an acceptance of death.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment brings 'Of Gods and Men' to Blu-ray as a two-disc combo pack. The first is a Region A/B, BD50 disc and the second is a DVD-9 copy of the film. Both are housed in a blue eco-vortex keepcase, sitting comfortably on opposing panels. At startup, viewers are greeted by the typical Blu-ray promo piece and followed by a series of skippable trailers. Afterwards, the screen changes to the standard menu selection with full-motion clips and music.
'Of Gods and Men' debuts unto Blu-ray with a very good and mostly attractive 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode. Filmmakers took great advantage of the beautiful Moroccan locations, and the picture quality here does fairly nice in delivering that beauty.
Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, the transfer shows strong object detailing in the foliage, around the monastery and in the buildings of the local village. Fine lines are generally sharp and distinct — some scenes more than others — where individual hairs and threading in clothing are plainly visible. There are a few noticeable but forgivable moments of haziness throughout, and dark, poorly-lit interiors display murky, somewhat noisy shadows which tend to obscure background info. Contrast is decently balanced and consistent with clean whites though overall picture is not very bright. Black levels are by and large deep and true, except for those interiors where we lose some depth. Colors are also accurate and naturally rendered with greater emphasis given to the softer secondary hues.
All in all, the video is in good standing order with much to enjoy.
Although the back of the packaging indicates 5.1 surround sound, the movie is more accurately a front-heavy stereo design.
Being a character-driven drama, this is not at all surprising. However, the DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack comes with a great sense of space and dimension, delivering the quiet, monastery lifestyle of these men as an immersive, ever-constant presence. Acoustics and fidelity are marvelous as the few, sparse sound effects lightly echo throughout with discreteness. The mid-range is stable and sharp though it's never pushed very hard except of one scene with a helicopter, which is accompanied by a healthy, deep low-end.
The focus is, of course, on a well-prioritized and precise dialogue, which is excellently delivered from the center of the screen, making this lossless mix a rather terrific presentation for a very quiet film.
Special features on this Blu-ray edition of 'Of Gods and Men' can also be found on its standard-def counterpart.
'Of Gods and Men' is an emotional drama that chronicles the true, unfortunate events surrounding seven Trappist monks mysteriously murdered during the Algerian Civil War. With elegant direction by Xavier Beauvois and powerful performances by the cast, the film is also a poignant meditative morality tale on faith and devotion, showing the idealism of pacifism confronted by the necessities of violent conflict. The Blu-ray debuts with a good audio and video presentation but a small collection of supplements. The package as a whole makes a decent purchase for fans, but others will likely want to give it a rent first.